When I first began my teaching career, everyone that I encountered was fully willing to give their advice on teaching. There’s the classic: “don’t smile until Christmas.” Or the less common: “develop a persona and stick to it.” Regardless of the adage they have the same thing in common— they all suggest for you to be someone who you aren’t. I once read a book (I will withhold the title) that described how the teacher tried on different personas that were departed from who they really were in order to finally settle on the right one. The premise was that this teacher was better able to control the classroom through the use of a persona that was a shadow of who they truly were. The thing that the author got wrong was the fact that we teach our life’s experiences, we teach what we know, or as Carson Palmer said “we teach who we are.” There is no escaping the fact that no matter what hat we try on or what character we attempt to play, we will find the most power in being genuine and being who we are. After all, who is better at sniffing out when people aren’t be true to who they are than our students?
Teaching is a personal endeavor that is deeply intertwined with who we are as people. We can walk into many different classrooms of equally effective and beloved teachers and find that they all teach in wildly different ways. One constant remains— in these classrooms the students are learning and they love being in class. I have spent many hours reflecting on my first years as a teacher. In these years, I had not yet found my voice.. As with the teacher in the book, I was playing one character after another in an effort to find the one that fit me. Unlike the author of this book, I finally settled on the character that fit me the best— me.
I can recall my principal sitting down with me in one of my first evaluation meetings and telling me that although I hadn’t yet found a style of teaching that suited me, I would. At the time, I thought that she meant by the end of the year. The truth is that it wasn’t that year, it was a progression of many years before I found my style and I found my voice. Looking back, my voice emerged several times throughout those years, but was quickly tucked away as I tried to mimic the styles of the teachers that I admired.
I spent a lot of my planning time going from one teacher’s room to another and just watching as they taught. The teachers that I found to be the best had a fluidity and an ease that can best be equated to watching a highly skilled professional athlete play their respective sport. It was the type of ease that can only be attained by someone who is teaching from a place that honored their true selves. As I watched each one of these teachers, I immediately saw something that I liked in their style. Sometimes I would just admire their method and realize that no matter how hard I tried, I could never pull it off. Other times, I walked into class the following day set on playing their character. Occasionally, I would see some success in using the tactic that I had observed. Most of the time, my mimicry would fall flat much like an amateur comedian trying to impersonate a famous actor. Although their impersonation might sound something like them, it’s nowhere near as good as the real thing. The worst of these impersonations came when I tried to run my class like a strong authoritative figure. For those of you who know me, this is the complete opposite of who I am. After a few days of trying to lead class this way, it became pretty clear to me that I was emulating someone who i was not.
As I played each of these characters, not only did I determine that I should never go into a career in acting, I felt a level of discomfort with what I was doing— the type of discomfort that only comes when you are departed from who you truly are. In my personal life, I was and still am comfortable living in my own skin. I knew who I was and the roles that I was playing were far from that person. I had removed myself from the confidence that I had in living the reality of who I was. Worst of all, each of these characters made teaching more of a chore than a labor of love and passion. While I was off playing these characters at my job, the real me was screaming inside. It was screaming for me to teach what I know, to teach who I am. After all, what character do we know how to play better than ourselves?
I let the person who had been trapped inside of me during the school day come out. Just as we are in constant revision of ourselves in our personal lives, our teaching voice being iterated in an effort to become the teacher that we know that we can be. With each day spent in the classroom, my style becomes more clear and ultimately more refined. I am no longer in search of the perfect teaching character to play because I have come to the realization that the one that I play best is myself. I cannot claim perfection. Each of my strengths is accompanied by a weakness. There are times where I continue to struggle with the weaknesses that my kind, compassionate, joking nature presents— the shortcomings of playing my own character. I am in a constant cycle of revision. As one of my students spoke to me in a meeting to describe the things that she was struggling with during the day: “I am a work in progress.” Then again, aren’t we all?